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Navigating Toy Sites Is Almost Child's Play

November 23, 2000|JENNIFER LOWE | jennifer.lowe@latimes.com

Shopping for toys around the holidays is a frustrating experience. Half of the time, you just don't know what to buy. The other half, you can't find what you want. This Santa has decided to shop online for her five nieces and nephews. Though you don't get to play with toys from the computer, you also don't trip over screaming kids in the aisles.

The battle for Internet toy shoppers like me has been fierce, especially between EToys.com, whose stock has plunged, and Toysrus.com, which had trouble getting its Web site working last Christmas. Since then, Toysrus has teamed with Amazon.com.

How do the two rivals compare?

After ordering two toys from each site recently, I give the edge to EToys for its more gentle site and seemingly more creative toys. And based on about 40 minutes spent on EToys, the site seemed better organized.

Maybe I went to the Toysrus site with the attitude I have in its stores--one of being completely overwhelmed. When I typed "Thomas the Tank" in the search window on Toysrus, I got 192 hits. It took me well over an hour to cruise the Toysrus site--and I still couldn't find the right thing for my 5-year-old niece Hailee--yet the experience still beat going to a toy store.

Both sites offered information about the toys, and both have recommendations from outside sources. Toysrus didn't have age information in at least one case--I couldn't tell the suggested age for its best-selling "Harry Potter" game, though it did feature an 11-year-old customer's review.

What ultimately miffed me was that one day after I placed my order, EToys included a $5-off coupon in the Sunday paper. Though it said, "good on orders placed Nov. 4" (the day I ordered), EToys told me in an e-mail that the coupon could not apply to my order because it was already in progress. Toysrus, meanwhile, had a bunch of coupons in its Sunday ad, but they were good only in its retail stores and not on its Web site. (Toysrus.com said the discount already was reflected in its prices.)

Here's a rundown of how I did:

EToys.com

Right off, I spotted the "holiday hot list" (Barbies, Razor scooters, etc.), but I wanted something that wasn't hot. Other categories included "big gifts" ("the box they can't wait to open"), high-tech gifts, one-of-a-kind gifts and toys by age. Shopping for Lauren, 6, in the one-of-a-kind category, I was intrigued by a zither, a stringed musical toy you play with a pick, $29.99. Click. Done.

But what to get for James, age 17 months. I clicked on "toy recommendations" but was turned off by the Play-Doh McDonald's Happy Meal Playshop. I remembered the popular Thomas the Tank Engine stories, and a search brought up a push toy and some books, among other things. One book I wanted, though, said, "usually ships in 4 to 5 weeks." But a nifty feature allowed me to see a close-up of a page from a book: "Wave Hello to Thomas," available and discounted 20% to $3.99, would be great with the push toy Thomas, $24.99.

Only glitch: Checking out. The EToys site first showed me at my old address, even though I typed in my new one. Then it showed the gifts going to the address of a previous gift recipient, even though I had specified they should come to me.

Total: $78.68, including $14.85 for shipping (for "premium" 3- to 5-day delivery). I ordered Saturday; it arrived Wednesday.

Toysrus.com

The site had toys by age, by category (action figures, games, puzzles), hot toys (Presidential Barbie 2000), classic toys, deal of the week, top sellers.

Where to start? Top sellers had lots of Barbies. Shopping by age meant I had to choose from more categories--toys and games, arts and crafts--and clicking through a few, I started feeling overwhelmed. I swore I'd already seen the $15 wizard's hat three times. I put Hailee on hold and searched for Thomas the Tank Engine stuff for Jeremy (15 months). My first two picks were on back order, as was another item in "back-to-basics," a push car. But the Brio firetruck, which a customer rated highly, was in stock, $26.99. Sold.

I still had nothing for Hailee. I was set to buy a collapsible tunnel when I read a customer's review: The photo showed two tunnels, not one, wrote the disappointed customer, and one wasn't enough. At $24.99, two would be too much. Weary, I gave up.

The next day, I flipped through the Toysrus newspaper ad and immediately found Hailee's toy--a Baskin-Robbins Ice Cream Bar Factory, $24.99. I tried to type in the coupon code for this item from the ad, but the site told me the coupon was not necessary.

Total: $68.67, including $16.69 for shipping (for second-day air). I ordered Sunday; the delivery split in half, arriving Wednesday and Thursday.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Shopping for: Toys

Sites visited: EToys.com, Toysrus.com

The good: Not having to deal with screaming kids, their parents or fights over hot toys in a real toy store.

The bad: Though I shopped early, I got aced out of early-shopper promotions on both sites. After I'd ordered, EToys.com offered $5 off orders of $30 or more; Toysrus.com had free shipping on orders of $100 or more. Some items were already out of stock.

Bottom line: It's best to know what you want before you shop.

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